Biden must tread carefully on Israel-Iran confrontation
The Israeli-Iranian war over Syria continues apace. If anything, it has escalated significantly in the last two months. This element of the Syrian conflict has lasted since at least 2013. Israeli strikes, which were once a rarity, have become routine. The Lebanese complain in vain at the frequency of low-level Israeli aircraft disturbing their peace. The sonic booms are magnified by the trauma of the Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut.
Israeli planes last week launched one of the largest attacks in years on Iranian sites within Syria. Some 57 Syrian soldiers and foreign fighters from Iran-backed militias, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, were killed in more than a dozen airstrikes, which hit 18 targets in eastern Syria. It was the highest number of casualties recorded from an Israeli bombardment in Syria.
One Israeli claim is that parts for the Iranian nuclear weapons program were stored there. This is intriguing but there is a lack of evidence to back it up. No details were given. Iran is more than capable of such subterfuge but, given the regular Israeli bombing of Syria, would this be the safest location for sensitive materials?
The outgoing Trump administration has ramped up the pressure on Iran, even in the dying days of its term. The US assisted in supplying crucial intelligence to Israel. Last Monday’s very public meeting in a Washington restaurant between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Yossi Cohen, the Mossad chief, was clearly designed to highlight this. The November assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head of Iran’s military nuclear program, is almost certainly another US-Israeli effort on this track.
Israel has kept closely to the red lines it set out at the start of its air bombing campaign in Syria. It claims neutrality in the Syrian civil war, but says it will act to prevent Iranian military development to its north. Officially, Israel does not comment on its military action in Syria, although in recent years this has started to change. The likely first Israeli strike against an Iranian target was in January 2013. Many others followed, notably a huge strike on April 9, 2018, on the T4 base in central Syria. The Israeli military says it conducted 50 airstrikes in Syria during 2020, hitting more than 500 targets. In 2018 alone, it dropped 2,000 bombs on Syria.
Iran persists with its efforts in Syria and its ambition to control more and more of the country.
Many Israeli strikes are carried out close to the Syrian border with Lebanon, with the aim of preventing advanced weaponry from reaching Hezbollah. Some strikes target units responsible for the planting of explosives in the Golan Heights. Israel claims that Unit 840 of Iran’s Quds Force pays locals to plant the explosive devices. Israeli planes have even targeted areas in the north around Aleppo, showing that it can and will strike anywhere in Syria.
Yet for all this Israeli effort, one wonders what next? Will continuous bombing suffice and will Iran one day slip serious military hardware into Syria beyond the eyes of its enemies? All military operations can go wrong and who knows if Israel will lose a plane, get a pilot captured or kill innocent civilians, including children.
Iran persists with its efforts in Syria and its ambition to control more and more of the country through proxies and purchasing key pieces of real estate. Iran has sponsored Shiite militias from Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, which has given it power on the ground that even the Russians do not possess. Given its investment, Iran is unlikely to back off under Israeli pressure.
A year on from the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, who was the architect of Iran’s strategy in Syria, Tehran continues in the same vein despite sanctions and the efforts of its opponents. It sees Syria as a key part of its strategic defense, as well as a means to expand its typically malign influence across the region. The overarching strategy is to develop a corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean, through amassing power and influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The interests and well-being of the Syrian people do not register as an ambition. If anything, Soleimani and his ilk were pushing for the Assad regime to be even more brutal.
Syrian and Iranian officials have typically responded with threats and yet more threats. Syrian regime forces have certainly proved completely incapable of a credible response to Israeli air attacks. The regime has few options, save to moan to Russia and ask the Kremlin to do more to protect it. From the outset, Israeli strikes have shattered Assad’s claim that he is able to protect Syria and engage Israeli forces. The Israeli planes have had the freedom of the skies.
Russia has done very little to deter Israel despite having the capabilities. Why it refuses to do so is the subject of much speculation, but largely it suits Vladimir Putin to see Iran’s wings clipped in Syria. Who knows if Russian intelligence on the Iranian assets in Syria has made its way to Israel?
Looking ahead, 2021 could see many changes to this Israeli-Iranian war. Both countries may elect new leaders. Benjamin Netanyahu faces elections in March, with an Iranian presidential election scheduled for June. If a hard-liner takes the helm, what impact will that have on Iran’s ambitions in Syria and the region?
Iran’s military assets in Syria will no doubt be subject to further Israeli strikes. But Iran has soft power in Syria that cannot be bombed away. Its influence has grown in all spheres over the last decade, although its popularity among Syrians is highly questionable. Diminishing Iran’s influence requires a political victory that persuades Tehran to pull out or the Syrian regime to try to eject it if it can, which is unlikely.
This will be one of the many challenges Biden will face once he takes up residence in the White House. At no point did the Obama administration condemn such Israeli strikes. Biden will probably maintain the same posture. At the same time, he wants to engage Iran on the nuclear file. For Israel, the Syrian front may also be a useful arena for it to escalate tensions with Iran to undermine any chances of a deal it detests being agreed. The question for Biden is whether, as part of any nuclear talks with Iran, he can push Tehran to stop using Syria for its regional power games. This is not something Iran will give up lightly.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech